Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
At Katmai National Park & Preserve, safari goers will find some of the largest grizzly bears in the world, with some males weighing as much as 1,000 pounds. This remote area in southern Alaska boasts over four million acres of wilderness, bears drawn to the abundant salmon found in Brooks Falls. Head to one of the lookout platforms next to Brooks Camp for close-up views as the bears gather near Brooks River. There are also several backcountry locations for catching a glimpse of bears feeding in early spring and summer.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone‘s sprawling 3,500-square-mile park is home to hundreds of animal species, including grizzlies. About 150 call the park home, with over 700 in the Greater Yellowstone area. In spring, these roaming giants are often seen near Yellowstone Lake, Fishing Bridge, and Swan Lake Flats; during summer, catch them in the meadows between Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon. But be sure to check the park’s bear management areas before setting out.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
As of this year, there were at least 98 wolves in ten packs living in Yellowstone, with over 520 wolves living within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The Lamar Valley, inhabited by the Lamar Canyon wolf pack, is considered one of the best places in the world to view wolves in the wild; because they are in a protected area, they are less fearful of humans. Catch them at dusk or dawn when they are most active.
Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Another locale for prime wolf viewing, Denali National Park & Preserve is said to have between 7,000 and 11,000 wild wolves roaming the protected area – one of the highest concentrations of wolves in the state. Unfortunately, hunting was introduced to the area surrounding the park, and many fear this will lead to a decrease in the wolf population.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, along with Alaska Maritime Refuge, are the only areas within the National Wildlife Refuge System that are home to all three North American bear species. Along the shores of the Beaufort Sea, find over 900 polar bears that reside here; this number is steadily decreasing, however, due to threats of climate change and lack of prey. The best time to see these majestic creatures is August to October when the bears aren’t hibernating. Several outfitters offer tours, but if you head out alone, be sure to keep your distance.
Cougars are the largest wild felines in North America. Also known as a puma, panther or mountain lion, the cougar population is quite large, approximately 30,000 living in places like California, Arizona, and Texas – there have also been spottings in Tennessee. The Florida panther, a small subspecies living in Florida, is estimated to have a population of about 100. But keep in mind: these cats travel alone and are fearful of humans, so it will take some pure luck to catch this one in the wild.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
This year, President Obama named the official mammal of the US none other than the great and mighty bison (also known as the buffalo). The North American Bison are the largest mammals on the continent, with males coming in at a whopping 2,000 pounds on average. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there is a controlled population of about 750 bison roaming its badlands, sometimes seen along the park’s roads. Bear in mind that these mammals are wild and dangerous, so maintain a safe distance.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
Another ideal location for bison viewing, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park is home to one of the world’s largest publicly owned bison herds, with a population of about 1,300. Every year, the park hosts a Buffalo Roundup when cowboys saddle up and bring in the herd, which can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
A remote island cluster in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is known for its large moose population between 700 and 1,200. During summer, the annual Moosewatch Expedition is hosted by the park, featuring camping expeditions (open to the public) that look into the background behind the island’s most prevalent residents.
Baxter State Park, Maine
Within Maine, there are around 75,000 moose roaming the state – the largest concentration in the US outside of Alaska. Their populations are greatest in the Western Lakes and Mountains, the Maine Highlands, the Kennebec Valley, and Aroostook County. But Baxter State Park offers the best opportunities to catch these mammals in the wild. The park helps to regulate human contact and control impact on the moose population with its summer-issued ‘Moose Passes.’
Kodiak Island, Alaska
Kodiak bears are the largest bears in the world, some weighing in at 1,500 pounds. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Kodiak bears are a unique subspecies of the grizzly bear that have been isolated from the others since they migrated to the islands 12,000 years ago. There are about 3,500 bears on the islands, which can be seen lumbering around the wilderness during summer. Take a guided tour with Kodiak Brown Bear Center, which takes visitors to several bear-sighting locations that are a safe enough distance away.
Every winter, over 10,000 humpback whales migrate from Alaska to their breeding grounds along the coast of Hawaii. The humpback whale is one of the largest species of baleen whales, with adult males weighing up to 45 tons and 60 feet in length. Although researchers are concerned that whales have been slow to return, the Hawaiian islands are one of the best places to see these creatures.
Humpback whales also gather in the northeast part of the Gulf of Maine. There have also been several instances when humpbacks have traveled farther south – like the sighting off the coast of New Jersey. Check the Center for Coastal Studies for a list of tagged whales.
The Pacific walrus is a large pinniped (from the seal and sea lion family) that lives in the Bering and Chukchi seas near Russia and northern Alaska. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are an estimated 55,000 to 507,000 walruses in this region. Walruses, which can get up to 12 feet long and weigh up to two tons, have hundreds of highly sensitive whiskers that they use to search the seafloor for food, resting on sheets of ice between foraging trips. But because of climate change, these icy areas are disappearing, forcing thousands to flee to a string of islands in Bristol Bay to find an alternate piece of land – a behavior known as ‘hauling out.’ While the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary can only be accessed by permit, viewers can watch a live feed 24/7 on the sanctuary’s webcam.
Año Nuevo State Park, California
Every spring, thousands of elephant seals – named for their large noses that resemble an elephant’s trunk – arrive on the shores of the Año Nuevo State Park for the breeding season. The largest ‘true seal’ at over 13 feet long and weighing nearly 4,400 pounds, males can be heard hollering for a potential mate’s attention from miles away. This is the best time to catch a glimpse of an elephant seal outside of the coastal waters; the rest of the year is spent under the sea.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
The Florida Manatee, a massive distant relative to the elephant, is an aquatic beast usually found in the warm rivers, bays, and oceans of western Florida. During the colder months, hundreds migrate up Crystal River, a National Wildlife Refuge, with 600 calling the region home. This area is one of the best places to spot a manatee, with several operators offering up-close-and-personal tours.
Note to safari goers: remember to always respect the animals and their surroundings.